Cover image for Jane Hammond: Paper Work Edited by Marianne Doezema

Jane Hammond

Paper Work

Edited by Marianne Doezema

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Was: $39.95 Now: $9.99 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02981-8

168 pages
10" × 12"
90 color illustrations
2007
Co-published with Mount Holyoke Art Museum

Jane Hammond

Paper Work

Edited by Marianne Doezema

“Jane Hammond’s work hovers at the intersection of word and image. During the 1990s she established a formidable reputation as a painter, which is now being augmented by a closer look at her paper-based work in a traveling exhibition and its accompanying catalogue. Essays by Nancy Princenthal and Faye Hirsch and a conversation between the artist and Douglas Dreishpoon make it abundantly clear that Hammond is also a quintessential paper artist.”

 

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Winner of a 2008 AAUP Book Jacket and Journal Show for Trade Illustrated

This catalogue focuses on works on paper by contemporary artist Jane Hammond, who garnered a reputation in the art world as a painter in New York in the 1990s. Through the interplay of text and recycled images, Hammond has produced a series of fresh, compelling, and provocative pieces. Most recently, Hammond has launched an exploratory journey into the realms of memory and communication, evoking mass media and scientific concepts while infusing her colorful works with a sense of youthful wonder. The catalogue’s sixty-four featured works show the diversity of her oeuvre. These pieces, though paper-based, are rarely confined to two dimensions or to a small scale. They combine mixed-media collage, text, and a series of symbols that create a visual vocabulary found throughout her work. This exhibit is a testament to Hammond’s scope of imagery, depth of symbolism, and willingness to expand the boundariesof artistic creation. The catalogue will accompany an exhibition of the same name that has its debut at the Mount Holyoke Art Museum and will then travel to other museums across the country beginning December 17. It will be showing at the Tucson Museum of Art; the Chazen Museum at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; the Arkansas Art Center in Little Rock, Arkansas; the Herbert F. Johnson Museum at Cornell University; the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco; and the Detroit Institute of Arts.Contributors include Nancy Princenthal, Faye Hirsch, and Douglas Dreishpoon.
“Jane Hammond’s work hovers at the intersection of word and image. During the 1990s she established a formidable reputation as a painter, which is now being augmented by a closer look at her paper-based work in a traveling exhibition and its accompanying catalogue. Essays by Nancy Princenthal and Faye Hirsch and a conversation between the artist and Douglas Dreishpoon make it abundantly clear that Hammond is also a quintessential paper artist.”

Marianne Doezema is Florence Finch Abbott Director at Mount Holyoke Art Museum in South Hadley, Massachusetts.

Contents

Foreword

Reading Between the Lines: Works on Paper by Jane Hammond

Nancy Princenthal

In the Forest of Signs: Jane Hammond’s Prints and Photographs

Faye Hirsch

Interview with Jane Hammond

Doug Dreishpoon

Selected Collections and Exhibitions

Bibliography

Reading Between the Lines:

Works on Paper by Jane Hammond

Nancy Princenthal

Hammond’s Uncertainty Principle

To the uninitiated eye, Jane Hammond’s drawings are unruly gardens of delight, bountifully fertile but altogether ungoverned by law or logic. For anyone familiar with her work, they are also the very model of tidy husbandry. Since 1988, Hammond has constructed her compositions around a family of images—276 of them—assembled from a tremendous variety of print sources. (Her lexicon was put together during nearly a decade spent mostly in Baltimore, where she taught from 1980 until 1990 at the Maryland Art Institute.) “At the beginning,” Hammond said in an interview with David Lehman, “I was looking for a surrogate for style”—in other words, for a kind of procedure that would inhibit recourse to purely subjective visual choices. But she was also, from the beginning, looking for expressive license. As she puts it, “I was trying to figure out how to make a kind of work that was decentered and variable, wandering and unpredictable even to me.”

The evidence is that she succeeded. “To this day, I don’t know why I chose some things and not others. As to the number, at a certain point it seemed like enough. . . . If I had twenty images it would have been too gamey and pat. If I had 5,000 you would never apprehend any structure. It would feel like chaos.” Moreover, the built-in flexibility of her system has allowed for a kind of internal randomness-generator, and surprises have proliferated. “Over time,” she says, “entropy seeps in and the rules break down and things get more complex.”

One aspect of the program that Hammond has relaxed is her identification system. At first, she titled her paintings with strings of numbers, corresponding to the numbering of the image bank, but by 1990 she had begun to name her work with words, embracing the kind of semantic cross talk that has proliferated since. Notable in this respect is her collaboration with poets. In 1993, John Ashbery provided, at Hammond’s invitation, forty-four titles for new work, to which she applied herself for eight years. In 2002 she collaborated with Raphael Rubinstein on a book project. Both collaborations speak for the enduring importance to Hammond of poetry and also of written language more broadly—as source material, as organizing structure, and as a kind of overarching metaphor. In fact, all of Hammond’s work can be considered an exploration of words as things—not (or not only) in the sense that typography has visual interest, but that semantic units have many sides, and can be turned around and looked at from the back and from underneath. Visual correspondences can be found that plug in like different atoms in the creation of a molecule, the variability of the attachments creating structures with wholly unrelated shapes and functions. The very logic of the system breeds unpredictability.

As its susceptibility to sub-molecular analogy suggests, Hammond’s work can be understood to proceed from the most physically precise understanding of language and, simultaneously, from one that is completely disembodied. That second approach is the one Hammond herself generally takes. “For fifteen years I’ve been using this term ‘recombinant structure,’” she told Douglas Dreishpoon in an interview for this catalogue. “For fifteen years, I’ve been using this term ‘the bodilessness of information.’” At the beginning of those fifteen years, in the later 1980s, digital imagery was a novelty, and the Internet—as a source of information and, more important, as a model of connectivity—barely existed. By now, the fluid relationships it facilitates between distant bodies of thought, and also between their disparate representations, have become commonplace in both visual and textual culture. That technology-based fluidity was anticipated in Hammond’s work, and now runs alongside it, illuminating (and from time to time contributing to) its progress. In an interview for the New York Times, she told Amei Wallach, “I think my work deals very directly with the time that we live in. There’s a surfeit of information, increasingly bodiless because of the computer, and I bring to this an interest in how meaning is constructed.” Just as logic provides a fertile ground for chaos in Hammond’s work, its materiality—that is, the mostly old-fashioned, hand-drawn, and mechanically reproduced illustrations that form the core of her vocabulary—becomes the basis for radical ethereality.

This paradoxical immaterial physicality in Hammond’s work, like its ordered chaos, sets up a motivating dynamic. “Because painting is less body than sculpture, it seemed to me that it held more information,” Hammond told Dreishpoon. “If you were to extend that analogy, you would say that words are even less body than painting, and they can hold even more information . . . and there is something about paper as opposed to painting that feels to me now like it holds more information.” Her pursuit of ever richer and less physically substantial forms of communication has, it seems, led Hammond inexorably toward working on paper, which is maximally thin and flexible. The pursuit, she acknowledges, is—fruitfully—endless. To writer Faye Hirsch, Hammond observed that “nothing physical is ever as nimble as the mind.”

And yet, Hammond makes objects that are in some respects surprisingly conventional—and even, in many examples, increasingly sculptural. Hammond’s work is always handmade, usually laboriously, in a way that draws attention to details—of draftsmanship, of texture and weight, of visual expression and its nuanced dialects, of composition. Although by generation and inclination she is a kind of Conceptualist, Hammond violates that movement’s prohibitions against visual delight in everything she makes. Of all the paradoxes her work embraces, this may be the most engaging: not its confounding duality of order and its opposite, or matter and spirit, but its tenaciously held pleasure principle, which insists on finding sensual satisfaction even where the intellect is determined to hold dominion.

Chickens and Eggs, Harlequins and Hussies

Her paintings, Hammond says, arrive in her mind ready-made and never require preparatory drawings. With drawings, however, she proceeds from a tabula rasa. As she told Hirsch, “I begin a painting with an almost complete idea in my mind of what it is going to look like. With rare exceptions, I start the drawing with nothing.” Fittingly, the earliest drawing in this exhibition is Premonition (1990). Its subjects include a blood-red chicken, its body dripping paint, and, suspended above, two pale, perfectly shaped eggs. Contemplating the grisly question of which came first is another fowl, this one of cartoon lineage, its plumage laughably sparse, body polka-dotted, and eyes agog. One bird is drawn; the other is a rubbing from a carved linoleum block, both executed, as is Hammond’s habit, with skill and grace, but no flourish of subjectivity. Their origin in print media is clear. But the problem of priority they raise is far from resolved, and easily transferred from chicken and egg to artist and image. It finds Hammond occupying a position both fraught and comic. To use the drawing’s own idiom, she has put herself in a place that is a little like Wile E. Coyote charging off the cliff, only to be suspended for an instant in midair. In fact, it is altogether characteristic of Hammond’s work then and now that she approaches the big questions of late Modernism, including especially those that concern originality and authenticity, with as much goofy humor as erudite intelligence.

Both intelligence and humor are apparent in the relationship of figure to ground in this drawing, which—again like Road Runner—finds the two birds perilously suspended in space. Without the benefit of a horizon line or evident gravity (notice especially those fragile hanging eggs), the figures can only cleave tentatively to the transparent surface of the Japanese paper that is their support. The spatial condition that prevails in Premonition, as throughout Hammond’s drawings, can be compared to the infinitely mutable space of digital imaging. It also conforms to the “flatbed” space of mechanical reproduction that Leo Steinberg identified as Robert Rauschenberg’s most radical invention and associated (in 1972) with the dawning information age in Conceptual art and beyond. This Rauschenbergian (or Steinbergian) flatbed, on which orientation matters not at all because the imagery it holds—all borrowed from elsewhere—comes to rest only provisionally, accords well with Hammond’s work.

All of this may seem like a lot to deduce from one relatively simple and small drawing, even if it is considered representative, in embryo as it were, of themes that recur in Hammond’s work. But then all of Hammond’s drawings teasingly, and irresistibly, invite continuous interpretation. In so doing, they follow the trajectory of early Conceptualism less closely than that of Surrealism, with which Hammond is as often associated, a connection evident, for instance, in the postcard series of 1993. Using vintage postcards, Hammond combines stock characters of exoticism—Mexican fishermen hauling in their nets, a spear-bearing American Indian—with damsels in distress, or simply on display, breasts and buttocks much in evidence. In one case, a mustachioed hero comes to the rescue, though his baleful expression suggests he has more on his hands than he bargained for. These are modest works, close in spirit to the ephemera on which they are based, but again it is characteristic of Hammond to squeeze outsized expressive issues into arrogance-puncturing objects.

Nothing is more effective at deflating vanity than a good clown—or at expressing the sorrows that lurk in every pleasure garden. For both reasons, clowns and their kin have been favored by artists (and writers) for centuries, from the elegant jesters in Watteau’s baroque comédiens and fêtes to Picasso’s mournful harlequins to Paul McCarthy’s notoriously malevolent, blood-and-viscera-spewing clown. Hammond’s own many representations of professional charmers owe something to each (though considerably more are indebted to the tradition of gentle amusement than to violent disruption). Her three-dimensional paper Clown Suits (1994–95) are brightly colored and boldly patterned, with simple diamonds or dots on one half and on the other a rich selection of her image-bank icons—a seesaw, a steak, and a trained monkey are among those on one suit; a walnut, a pair of scissors, and a single staring eye on another—which here mischievously hint at designer logos run amok. Gathered at ankles and wrists but otherwise shapeless, with double-ruffed collars and conical hats topped with pompons, these clown costumes have a kinship with baby outfits: they are shaped not only for comfort but also for their patron’s amusement, and their silliness, as with most clowning, is a little humiliating and a little melancholy.

Among the same family of entertainers are magicians and other artists of deception, who also figure prominently in Hammond’s work. In Electric Kachina (1997), a group of roughly three-foot-high mixed-media drawings on Japanese paper, Harry Houdini struggles out of leg-irons and manacles, and also out of confinement in a corner of the bustling composition. Above him, a palmist’s chart looms, its lines measuring life, success, marriage, and, as an inscription more mysteriously indicates, “mind.” The release this chart promises, from the perils of uncertainty, is of course just as deceptive as Houdini’s. The Crush of Circumstance (1999) features what appears to be a snake charmer holding court at center stage, a slender reptile dangling from one of his outstretched hands. Just below, a man cutting his own likeness from black paper appears in the form of a black-paper silhouette: self-invention as the mirror image of deception, positioned to reflect each other in endless regress. Elsewhere, a Hollywood beauty springs from a wishing well, and a white rabbit appears from nowhere at all, with not even a top hat in sight. By causing the unlikeliest beings to appear out of thin air, Hammond rather explicitly casts herself as a magician (and what artist does not, to some degree?). But her drawings are, distinctively, conjuring acts in form as well as content, their densely layered and concatenated images floating and colliding with more grace than spatial credibility. Drifting up from variably transparent depths, as in dreams, or reflections on moving water, the drawn, printed, stamped, collaged, transferred, and rubbed fragments together suggest the intimacy—acknowledged, and deplored, by so many religions—between benign representation and the apostate’s black arts.

Drawing’s founding deceptions are nowhere more apparent than in Hammond’s many images of rope and string. Knotted, coiled, spooled, and spinning—and sometimes self-transforming as we watch—her rope tricks play on the analogy (irresistible to an artist so clearly fond of puns) between the linear armatures of narrative (the story line) and pictorial description. The drawing Past Time (1998) contains lines of nearly every variety, from electrical cord to the knottiest tangle of nautical twine. It also includes a Möbius strip-like ribbon, a bent playing card, an origami frog, and two delicate photos of an egg-filled bird nest. At the center of the drawing is a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, his disembodied head aflame in yellow, orange, and red, burning like a sun in the drawing’s otherwise serenely blue visual field. Again, it is possible to construct a narrative linking its disparate elements. Gandhi’s spiritual and intellectual strength might be interpreted as the energy source for the (metaphorical) battery (electrical wires connect to his head) that powers the nascent life all around him, offering a solution to life’s knottiest problems, a safeguard against eggshell-thin fragility, and moral courage as a substitute for luck (viz. the playing card). It must be conceded that this reading relies on grasping at threads as treacherous as they are sumptuous. But it is in the nature of Hammond’s method that the risk is part of the pleasure and altogether to the point.

Among the many associations to linear form, none is more potent perhaps than a lifeline, referred to not only in the many representations of sturdy ropes but also, more explicitly, in the palmist’s chart. In the first case, it alludes to a line that saves and protects lives, and in the second to a line that measures the limits of our mortal term, forming the kind of symmetrically opposed dyad that appears repeatedly in Hammond’s work. Indeed, a great many of the pictorial elements in her glossary flip back and forth not between two meanings, but between two spatial readings. Examples in Past Time include several geometric figures whose leading faces can seem to advance and recede, and also the spatially ambiguous playing card. Optical puzzles like these are a hinge between magic and science, illustrating weak spots in the human visual system that invite the imagination to intercede. Such puzzles were crucial to nineteenth-century physiologists in developing an understanding of vision as a phenomenon that is as much constructed within the body (or mind) as it is constrained by external phenomena. This understanding, in turn, played an important part in the emergence of Modernist subjectivity in a process that was deeply reciprocal. For all these reasons, optical puzzles are a hinge in Hammond’s world, too.

This pivot parallels another that appears throughout Hammond’s pictorial lexicon. Hammond chooses many of her images because of the links they establish between objects that are animate and those that are inert, sentient and the obtuse. Thus the prevalence of trained animals, dolls, fetishes, and ritual objects of all kinds, including the silent, faithful friends that psychoanalysts call “transition” objects. In the enchanted world of childhood—or in the universe as rippled by magical thinking at any age—an origami frog can jump with at least as much vigor as the specimen in a glass of water beside it, to return to the imagery of Past Time. Spiritual practice is often a guarantor for such vivified objects, as in Electric Kachina, which features the eponymous “doll” in the form of a grinning red head with cowrie-shell eyes and feathers for ears. The cutaway rendition of a cozy single-family house that tumbles through the center of Electric Doll House (1998) shows a different foreign object menacing every room, including a goggle-eyed wolf (surely Little Red Riding Hood cannot be far) leering from an upstairs bedroom. More benign is the cymbal-clapping marine mammal that performs his role in Still Life with Seal (1999); friendly, too, is the tiny dancing monkey in Crush of Circumstance, who is joined by a costumed pig as well as the charmed snake and leaping white rabbit that have already been noted. The canine stars of Dog Dance (1998) balance on stilts as they stride across a gameboard-like rendition of a Native American encampment complete with half a dozen little tepees, two conversing figures in feathered headdresses, and a single drying hide.

In fact, games are another recurring motif in Hammond’s work, which can be compared in its entirety to a board game or, perhaps, a faux-Victorian Sim City: Hammond creates the characters, establishes a minimal set of constraints, and sets them in motion in an endless match in which both she and her viewers participate. It is significant in this regard that Hammond herself often appears among the other characters. In Martin House Me (1999), two identically drawn representations of her head are shown separately mounted on wooden stands placed on a gridded board—Jane as her own chess piece, jumping with naughty glee from art to life and back again. Also in this drawing is a toy box and a clown-headed rattle (along with much else, including a cup holding a bird, a hexagonal, bright red Baroque building, and a clutch of men in funny hats). The high incidence of children’s playthings and anthropomorphized animals contributes to a geography that seems to lie somewhere on the other side of the looking glass. Indeed Lewis Carroll’s learned and playful literary intelligence, his fascination with puzzles of logic and mathematics, and, not least, the John Tenniel drawings that accompanied his best-known books all seem close in spirit to Hammond’s work.

Objects of Affection

In making the leap from art to life and back again, Hammond acknowledges the figures that loom largest on the same course, including Marcel Duchamp and Jasper Johns. Duchamp’s Tu m’ (1918), the glossary-like painting in which Duchamp brings together a signpainter’s handiwork, house-painters’ samples, traced shadows, trompe l’oeil illusionism, and real objects, including actual safety pins spanning a painted tear in the canvas, seems to be one reference point for Hammond’s Still Life with Seal, with its assortment of manually and mechanically reproduced images and, particularly, its scattered handful of tacks. Johns’s landmark paintings of flags, targets, and, especially, maps, with their double-exposed presentation of an object and its likeness, lurk behind Hammond’s images, too. Such deliberate confusion is particularly prevalent in Hammond’s most recent work, which often tips into three dimensions, as did some earlier work as well (the Clown Suits, for instance). A series of collages made in 2004 and 2005 combine hand-drawn maps with assorted paper butterflies, digitally scanned from actual specimens and then painstakingly cut and collaged to handmade bodies and antennae, which gives them three-dimensionality. The materials Hammond used for these works include handmade papers, gouache, acrylic paint, graphite, colored pencil, archival digital prints, and horsehair. Each collage bears the title All Souls and is subtitled with a place name (Hefei, Cordoba, Babel). The maps are wondrous in the way of lavish Victorian book illustrations—the lettering elegant but often obscured by successive layers of information, the mapped lands alluring and distinct. Cordoba, for instance, has the blue-black gleam of the lining of a mussel shell, while Hefei and Babel are sunstruck and pale, their cartographic markings as fine as capillaries. The individual butterflies are realized with similar attention to detail in their lapidary markings and gemstone colors.

In these maps Hammond emphasizes natural features (bodies of water, broad details of topography) and ancient cities rather than national boundaries, favoring those landmarks that are most enduring. The fragility of the butterflies, their epic migratory patterns, and the brevity of their lives are, by contrast, all the more pronounced. At the same time, they can also be identified with an especially powerful figure for the mechanism of chaos, the so-called “butterfly effect,” by which the flutter of a gossamer wing on one side of the world can cause a typhoon on the other. As it happens, their presence in Hammond’s work is tied to both the habits of heroic travel and to a single, cataclysmic event. On the afternoon of September 11, 2001, a great number of Monarch butterflies alit on the flowers in her window box in lower Manhattan, not far from the World Trade Center towers. Perhaps, she says, they were migrating to a place west of Mexico City for the end of October—for the Day of the Dead, or All Souls day (hence the titles of the works), and Halloween, associated with the colors orange and black, which are also the colors of the Monarch butterfly. Although Hammond does not elaborate on that fateful day in interviews or, more to the point, in her work, the viewer can sense the pressure of the event behind the delicate workings of these intricate collages, complicating the far-flung geographies they trace, and agitating the insects that hover above them. At the same time, a host of purely personal associations animates the butterflies and their backgrounds, from Hammond’s grandmother’s brief but vividly recollected stay in Luxor (the first map, Babel, is of the Mideast) to her father’s descriptions of winged insects by way of analogy to planes, based on his experience as a naval pilot.

Hammond’s inclination to work in three dimensions, and in a guardedly personal domain, can also be seen as a motivation for her involvement with books in which her images are restored, much altered in the transit, to the format from which many of them derived. All artists’ books ask readers to reorder their viewing practices, enjoining them to look when they are more accustomed to reading and sometimes, as is especially important with Hammond’s work, to employ the habits of reading while looking. Moreover, their fundamental invitation to imaginary departure from the material world makes artists’ books—all books—objects of sorcery, one of the many reasons why they appeal to Hammond. Indeed the renowned magician and historian Ricky Jay calls the book in all its forms the “oldest manufactured conjuring prop.” Jay and Hammond were brought together in 1995, along with Vija Celmins, Glenn Ligon, Philip Taaffe, and William Wegman, for a project called The Magic Magic Book, published in an edition of one hundred by the Whitney Museum of American Art as part of a series edited by May Castleberry. Following the venerable magic-show format, The Magic Magic Book is tabbed with thumb cuts (like some dictionaries and Bibles). These allow practiced readers or performers to make it seem as though they are progressing one page at a time, while actually they are skipping past whole groups of pages (and the illustrations they contain). On subsequent presentations, the concealed images can be made—as if magically—to appear. Each artist participating in The Magic Magic Book was allotted a tabbed section. Hammond, whose previous involvement with the imagery of magic made the book a welcome opportunity, contributed images silhouetted in black, including harlequins and rabbits, a trained bear, and a ballerina, some of which came from historical blow books.

Hammond’s sensibility makes her an equally good match for Raphael Rubinstein, with whom she collaborated on the book Be Zany, Poised Harpists / Be Blue, Little Sparrows (2002). Published by Dieu Donné in an edition of thirty, this lavish publication combines images by Hammond with a quartet of poems by Rubinstein, whose predilection for rule-driven poetry, in which he follows the practices of the Oulipo poetry group, is in close harmony with Hammond’s. Just as important to both artist and poet are the moments of absurd humor and pure delight that they can produce within such constraints. In Be Zany, Rubinstein used a formula in which his poems progressed from a rule of two (two-letter words, two to a line, two lines to each of a pair of stanzas) to lollapaloozas of eight-letter words written eight to a line, and so on. Hammond’s illustrations include photo-based images of paired soap bubbles, a small album of vintage postcards, mischievously altered on the back, and an epic foldout collage.

While artists’ books are themselves outliers among the fine-art media, Hammond has also explored the genre’s own marginal territories, as in the scrapbooks she assembled in 2002 and 2003. Hammond takes the illustrations in these assemblages mostly from books and other print media and returns them to their original format, only now reborn as autographic images—that is, as handmade items tidily simulating opened handmade books. Composed with an unusual degree of economy and clarity, the scrapbooks present themselves as code-breakers, atlases for Hammond’s universe, a puzzling place occupied by a burning cigarette in a tin ashtray, a few dominoes, tiny heads of Picasso and Elvis, and handmade novelty boxes (Scrapbook [Ship in Bottle], 2002–2003), or a van Gogh self-portrait in the form of a jigsaw puzzle, a few dried pansies, and an assortment of celebrity-portrait commemorative stamps, including those of Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol, and Lucille Ball (Scrapbook [van Gogh], 2003).

Other bibliophilic and pedagogic excursions have taken Hammond to Asian exercise books and Western lecture halls. In Twelve Wishes (2000), she introduced elements from her image bank to sheets taken from the pages of an antique Chinese notebook already illustrated with reproductions of ink drawings, creating cryptic but graceful unions between disparate notation systems. Chalk Talk (2000) consists of sixteen simulated individual slate boards (the drawing surfaces are gessoed paper covered with blackboard paint), each used to diagram in chalk, as if for a scientific presentation, a molecular element from Hammond’s own periodic table. On several of these faux slates, a pentimento of one image appears, as if drawn and erased on a real blackboard, beneath the finished drawing of another. The dialogue between these several generations of images creates a ghostly colloquy. There is a choral resonance too among the images assembled in several drawings that were executed on small sheets of gampi paper hung in irregular grids—like stamp collections, or laundry on the clothesline. Here the Hammond lexicon can again be reviewed in a presentation format that toys with the conventions of collecting and connoisseurship.

In the same family of works are the recent Matchbooks (2003) and Stamp Book (2005), both of which condense Hammond’s imagery into discrete objects that are, not coincidentally, variants on books. The first bears single images on each cover; the second, published by the artist in 2005 in an edition of six, is a compilation of stamps based on every painting created in response to a John Ashbery title. Each one (there are sixty-four in all) has been scanned, reduced, and augmented with an elaborate border that includes the designation of an invented price, the monetary unit of which implies a country of origin. Extravagant in size and detail, these jewel-like, digitally output stamps are housed one to a page in a sumptuously produced book (the binding was done by Damara Kaminecki). The dialogues preserved in this book, between painter and poet, unique and multiple objects, and single and multiple cultures become positively orchestral, without losing their essential modesty. Apropos Stamp Book, Hammond says, “I like the idea of live cultures, as in yogurt,” which, like sourdough starter or embers from a fire, can be passed along from one context to another in a continuous cycle of use and self-replenishment, its powers of sustenance growing exponentially.

Lately Hammond has been experimenting with objects, generally made of paper, that have other functional associations. Several works relate to the theater, for example, Paper Model for Backstage: Secrets of Scene Painting and the backdrop-like Trail of Tears (2003). Dramatic too is Extravagant Reflex (2003–4), in which the constituent squares of paired grids are filled in with tufts of brightly dyed feather boas. A chart between the two grids names each color, in a form of found poetry: “Stendhal, Checkers, Linoleum” for red mixed with black, or, more simply, “Snow” for white. Extravagant, as the title promises, in hue and texture, and divorced in content and imagery from Hammond’s previous work, this collage nonetheless sustains with a deliciously light touch Hammond’s ongoing involvement with weighty questions: How is meaning assigned and understood? How is information coded and regulated? What difference does repetition make to sensual experience?

With the heartbreaking Fallen (2004–5), which is not included in this exhibition, Hammond departs quite radically from established practice. In this three-dimensional work, an ankle-high pile of sumptuously colored and varied autumn leaves, digitally printed in stunning detail from real specimens, is each named in honor of a soldier killed in Iraq. These, then, are real objects, captured, identified, and again set adrift in the world, their meaning doubled. At the same time, Hammond has recently turned to photographs, digitally altering black-and-white prints in which she allows the real world to insinuate itself, while at the same time manipulating its ostensibly documentary representations with increasing freedom, and, often, decidedly audacious humor.

Speaking Truth to Chaos

Dedicated though she is to the physical world, Hammond’s relation to objectivity is complicated. “My work is a fiction that’s woven of facts,” she has said. Of course, the same is often said of all kinds of narratives, including those that claim historical accuracy. But Hammond’s emphasis is distinctively on a kind of infinite present. As we watch, stories are created by the assembly of communicating images, rather than deriving from any fixed, anterior set of references. “Building meaning from the outside in as well as the inside out” is how she accounts for her methods. The chanciness, and interpretive tolerance, of this process would make most artists deeply uncomfortable—and may well do the same for some viewers. That is not to say, however, that Hammond’s work is easy in any sense. In fact, such leniency is most often associated with considerable difficulty—as is true of the famously recondite poetry of John Ashbery, which is particularly susceptible to conflicting interpretation. The difficulty of Ashbery’s work is said by David Lehman to reflect the poet’s belief that “misunderstanding is a creative process, another word for metaphor.” It is a belief just as readily associated with Hammond. That is, the reader’s or viewer’s effort at making sense re-creates the artist’s own and reaches for the same insight, the same unnamed but pungent precipitate of known quantities mixed together in unfamiliar ways.

To be sure, there is by now a self-explanatory element to Hammond’s growing body of work. A devoted viewer can achieve a kind of fluency, which can be supported by exploring the external connections it implies, including those to other artists. As she told Douglas Dreishpoon, “I’m a cross between Sol LeWitt and Frida Kahlo,” Hammond herself has said, naming a particularly unlikely connection between a founding father of hands-off Conceptualism and the patron saint of homemade, self-exposing figurative painting (a self-portrait by Kahlo is in fact an element in Hammond’s lexicon). The art historian David Carrier has compared Hammond’s work to the memory-box assemblages of Joseph Cornell, the disjunctive landscapes of de Chirico, and (with Ashbery) to Raymond Roussel’s proto-Surrealist poetry. Carrier also cites Duchamp and Johns. Critic and curator Ingrid Schaffner also links Hammond’s work to Cornell’s boxes and to James Joyce’s Ulysses, along with Mayakovsky’s found-sound poetry, Max Ernst’s landmark collage-novel, La Femme 100 Têtes (1929), and, closer to the present, the echt-1960s Terry Gilliam animations for Monty Python. In this connection, Robert Smithson’s early collages seem relevant as well. To connect all these dots (and others have been noted) is to trace a labyrinth—or a thicket of images that looks a great deal like a composition by Jane Hammond.

If on thing unites Hammond’s interests, it is a strong literary tilt. She has a preference for borrowing images and objects from beyond the boundaries of fine art. It can even be said that a common ingredient results from an unexpected distillate: call it an extract of realism. Here Hammond’s core vocabulary, of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century illustrations, links her not only to the Surrealists but also to such American realist painters as William Harnett and John Peto, among whose favored subjects were still lifes assembled on wooden doors, the backs of frames, and other flat vertical surfaces—like printers’ flatbeds, or scrapbooks. Just as the Surrealists would do in the twentieth century, Harnett and Peto pressed the most ordinary scraps of everyday life for the surplus impression, the extra measure of perceptual and emotional stimulus that held meanings not quite reducible to names. Between them (or Tenniel) and Ernst—and between both and Hammond—is a circle connecting waking and dreaming, where logic travels freely between the regimes of physical and psychic law.

Within this wide orbit, other circuits can be traced. Certain forms of mysticism (the numerology of the Kabbalah, for instance) similarly squeeze ordinary signs for extra (and particularly for extraworldly) meaning. It is a tradition to which Conceptualism has always had a strong affinity, acknowledged from the outset, sometimes with irony but never without some truth, by several first-generation Conceptualists. Notably, Sol LeWitt in the first of the thirty-five “Sentences on Conceptual Art” wrote in 1969: “Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.” A certain hardheaded mysticism is present in Frida Kahlo’s most acutely personal paintings. And it is in Jane Hammond’s work too, which constitutes a magisterial primer for reading between the lines.